Flair forwards a dying breed in modern game
In the build-up to a league game between Armagh and Roscommon in 2008, one online poll on an Armagh website posed the provocative question, 'Is it time to drop Stevie McDonnell?'.
The poll was merely continuing a theme which had been prevalent in the county over the previous year. After Armagh beat Louth in the 2007 league, the molten lava of frustration bubbling inside McDonnell finally erupted.
After he won the game with a last-minute goal, he vented his spleen at a section of Armagh supporters who had verbally abused him during games and who had urged then manager Joe Kernan to drop him from the team.
The main thrust of their complaints was that McDonnell was "too greedy" in front of goal. His excellence had been used as a stick to beat him with, but those supporters had casually chosen to forget the instincts which has made McDonnell the greatest goalscoring forward of his generation.
Armagh supporters can't be as glib in their criticism anymore, but McDonnell has done more than almost carry the team on his back ever since; he is also one of the remaining emblems of a golden generation of Ulster forwards from the last decade -- the likes of which the province might not see again for a long time.
In the 2000s, Ulster football produced some brilliant strike forwards: Stephen O'Neill, Owen Mulligan, Benny Coulter, Paddy Bradley, Oisin McConville, Ronan Clarke, Diarmuid Marsden, McDonnell and Tommy Freeman. The best of them all -- Peter Canavan -- was a product of the 1990s, but his second coming was still played out in the last decade.
There was also a really strong supporting cast of forwards: Brian Dooher, Brian McGuigan, Adrian Sweeney, Michael Hegarty, Paul Finlay, Enda Muldoon, Brendan Devenney and Seanie Johnson. Even Sean Cavanagh's contributions as a forward were often devastating.
When you scan the landscape now, many of those names have either drifted off the stage -- or will soon drift off. And when you look at the players primed to replace them this decade, only four Ulster forwards have hinted at reaching a similar level -- Down's Marty Clarke and Paul McComiskey, Donegal's Michael Murphy and Armagh's Jamie Clarke.
"Class forwards are few and far between now," says McConville, the top scorer in Ulster championship history. "For years, there was always somebody new on the block every year, but it's very rare now that you even see a fella bursting onto the scene at 19 or 20."
McConville has a point. Canavan, Clarke, Mulligan, McDonnell, McGuigan, Bradley and Freeman all made their championship debuts before they were 20, while Marsden and Coulter did so as minors.
Murphy made his championship debut as a minor in 2007 but he had the physique to facilitate his transition to senior football. Given the demands of the modern game, that factor has probably contributed to the lack of more talented forwards coming through.
"An out-and-out marquee forward has to do more now than he ever had before," says Tyrone manager Mickey Harte. "So maybe people are looking at a more rounded package and are developing their game in that way."
The most salient example of that required schooling is the outstanding Bernard Brogan. He will turn 27 this year -- just a year younger than Colm Cooper -- but Brogan had to serve one of the longest apprenticeships in inter-county football for a player with his talent.
Brogan was in devastating form during Dublin training games in 2006 but he still never saw a minute's game time, primarily because management felt he didn't track back enough and that he was only interested in getting on the scoreboard.
Brogan had been so used to dominating games at club level that it took him a while to develop the rounded style required for inter-county level. "I was just used to the ball being banged into the full-forward line (at club level) and I'd turn and kick it over the bar," he said in 2008. "And it took me a while to get into the team vein."
For years, the current Cork forward line was hammered, but last year showed that their best attackers were young players still developing their game. Daniel Goulding finally showcased his class on the big stage, but he was 24 by then with four years' championship experience behind him.
Ciaran Sheehan, though, broke the trend when his display was the best in an All-Ireland final for a player under 20 since Ronan Clarke in 2002.
Clarke, Cooper, Padraic Joyce, Michael Donnellan, Declan O'Sullivan, Trevor Giles and Mike Frank Russell had all starred on the big stage while they were U-21s, while McDonnell and Mulligan had done the business in an All-Ireland final at 22. However, it's not as easy now for good young players to compensate for inexperience.
"If you are a prolific scorer and are the only one in the forward line, you'll get eaten up in the modern game," says Harte. "There needs to a shared responsibility in every aspect of the game."
That is evident in how some of the best forwards are now deployed.
"Michael Murphy might play the majority of the championship in the middle of the field," says McConville. "That's certainly not going to help him to be recognised as a marquee forward. But that's how Donegal think they'll get the most out of him for the team's benefit."
The modern game has been fitted with some excellent playmakers and domestiques but there's no getting away from the decreasing trend of talented young sharpshooters emerging. That even applies to Kerry.
Between 2002-07, Kerry produced one outstanding forward every year -- Cooper, O'Sullivan, Paul Galvin, Darran O'Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy and Tommy Walsh. Yet that supply has dried up and Barry John Keane is the only player to edge his way into the picture in the meantime.
Burnout amongst young players is an obvious concern but another theory is that forwards are becoming slaves to the system, which is stifling individual talent.
"We should allow players to express themselves but I think we've coached it out of them," says former Donegal player Martin McHugh. "Forwards are becoming like machines. I think that's because they're all being coached the same way, with the same drills."
Harte though, doesn't agree. "I love to see flair and skill take on its own natural class," he says. "But you can't let people go on a solo run at the expense of the team game. A player's brilliance can make all the difference and you have to allow that to prevail. But it has to prevail in the context of what your team concept is all about.
"Natural flair raises its head when it's appropriate. You don't stifle a player's unique individuality because of a team plan. But you also don't allow their uniqueness to destroy the team plan. A bit of thinking both ways is required."
Looking to the future in Ulster now, there are a number of excellent young players on the horizon: Patrick McBrearty in Donegal, Ronan O'Neill, Peter Harte and Kyle Coney in Tyrone. Down's Caolan Mooney is another special talent but he's on his way to the AFL in Australia.
In any case, it's hard to see any young player hitting 2-7 in an Ulster final now, as McConville managed in his third season. The decade is still young, but it's already looking extremely unlikely that tomorrow's Ulster SFC opener between Donegal and Antrim will kick-start a summer littered with star attackers.